National Post (Latest Edition)
STEWART HAS SOME PROBLEMS
FORMER DAILY SHOW HOST HAS BEEN BEATEN BY THE GAME HE INVENTED
Recently, Jon Stewart took part in a new late-night tradition: the streaming comeback. Like David Letterman before him, and like Conan O’brien plans to do after them, the former Daily Show host — who remade the political comedy landscape and ended an iconic run on the Comedy Central series in 2015 — returned to TV last week with Apple TV+’S The Problem with Jon Stewart.
It’s been hard to miss him. Though Stewart has largely stayed out of the limelight during his sixyear hiatus, he left a lingering bad taste in the mouth when he signed off
The Daily Show by calling then-candidate Donald Trump a “gift from heaven” to comedians.
Irresistible, Stewart’s 2020 political satire film starring Steve Carell, opened to pans from critics and a dismal box office.
He then made headlines this June for an apparently failed joke on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about whether the pandemic was “more than likely caused by science.”
But Stewart has been hardest to miss because his success has made him obsolete.
On his Netflix talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Letterman uses his hour-long run time for in-depth interviews with famous people, sometimes yielding the kind of honest discussions he could only get as a fellow famous person. O’brien, who spent three decades retooling his shows to figure out what worked and what didn’t, decided only making more travelogues for his HBO Max show, to debut next year, would make him happiest. (Jay Leno’s Garage airs on CNBC, but it began as a web series, and it, too, is a passion project for the former Tonight Show host.)
As the most influential late-night figure of the past decade-and-a-half, Stewart faces a unique challenge: the countless imitators and former protégés who do exactly what he did, often with more refreshing perspectives (as with Amber Ruffin, the duo of Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, or Stewart’s Daily Show successor Trevor Noah).
The format Stewart popularized has now reached its undisputed apotheosis with John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, while the infotainment and political commentary ecospheres have expanded beyond television to Youtube and social media. Turns out, anyone can point out hypocrisy.
In the media run-up to the show’s release, Stewart has described The Problem with half-jokingly as “The Daily Show, but less entertaining.” That still oversells its humour; I didn’t laugh once during the two 45-minute episodes screened for review.
The first instalment was especially sombre, focusing on a worthy but largely ignored cause that Stewart has dedicated himself to for some time: veterans denied health care after exposure to carcinogenic toxins from Iraqi burn pits left them with sustained or terminal illnesses. “We went there to find weapons of mass destruction, and when they weren’t there, we made our own,” says Stewart, channelling the righteous anger that made The Daily Show appointment viewing for many progressives (including me for at least a decade) — but not exactly tickling the studio audience’s funny bone.
In a fame landscape that’s utterly transformed since Stewart began his career, he wants to use his celebrity the old-fashioned way: to shine the spotlight on people and stories that might not get it otherwise.
It’s a noble ambition, but one that surely Stewart must realize precious few viewers will stick around for without some jokes to leaven the proceedings.